The importance of the essay form varied with each period in Gottfried Benn’s life. He particularly favored prose in situations of crisis; his use of the essay in the crucial period of the 1930s, for example, is not only a preference for the essay form, but also for its potential readership, since the essay reaches a much wider audience than poetry. Over half of all Benn’s essays appeared between 1930 and 1934, when he found himself forced from the position of the outsider to that of a crucially important participant in the conflict between Left and Right.
Benn was never a typical essayist: his greatest achievement was to place current situations into historical, even anthropological frameworks and thus create surprising perspectives. He was a superb stylist, even when his vocabulary at times obscured his subject. He was a master of darkly fascinating statements, but he was a poet rather than a thinker. His essays cannot be compared in argumentative originality and lucidity with those of Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, or Thomas Mann, and many critics have in fact emphasized the stylistic proximity of these essays to poetry, while others have charged that they misuse an essentially philosophical form. Benn’s method, to replace logical content with lyrical images, does give his essays a certain monotony, and occasionally betrays intellectual and stylistic sloppiness and carelessness.
A major problem in these essays is the question of public and private, of representative and subjective viewpoints. Indeed, Benn’s first essay, Das moderne Ich (1920; The modern self), hovers between the two spheres. On the one hand it is a“public” speech to students of the natural sciences, intended to give an overview of the post-World War I mentality. On the other hand, the shift from politics to the “inner” emotional and spiritual life already betrays Benn’s preferences. Benn reveals a more political side in his next major essay, “Neben dem Schriftstellerberuf” (1927; Beside the profession of writer), when he not only affirms the asocial and nihilistic nature of art, but also presents himself as an opponent of the Weimar Republic, though it is as yet difficult to place him in either a leftist or rightist camp.
Increasingly in the late 1920s Benn’s interest turned to the definition of art and the artist. In “Totenrede für Klabund” (1928; Eulogy for Klabund), he stresses the sense of mission of the artist, contending that the artist lives between social levels, despised and unknown, while himself a despiser. It was precisely because of this constellation that Benn was vulnerable to the temptation to seek a recognition which lies outside the realm of art, and can only be bestowed at the terrible price of political compromise.
A first indication of the increasing polarization of the German literary scene in fact involved Max Herrmann-Neisse’s review of Benn’s prose in Die neue Bücherschau (The new book review) in 1929. Herrmann-Neisse’s enthusiastic comments included a derogatory remark against literary suppliers of political propaganda materials and the claim that Benn was more “revolutionary” than the propaganda writers on the Left. Two of the magazine’s contributors reacted with a letter to the editor, in which they resigned.
Benn himself was invited to respond to these letters and did so in his essay “Über die Rolle des Schriftstellers in dieser Zeit” (1929; Concerning the role of the writer in this era). In 1930 there followed “Zur Problematik des Dichterischen” (On the problem of the poetic), Benn’s first full-blown poetic “theory” in which he concludes that at no time has art been able to fit into a contemporary context, nor have artists been able to influence the contemporary scene. Rather, the poet-artist is a purveyor of dreams and visions, the prophet of ecstatic existence.
Benn was able to conceive of his idea of the poet as having access to archaic visions because of his “geological” interpretation of the personality, which he presented in “Der Aufbau der Persönlichkeit” (1930; The structure of personality). Here he argues for a new image of man built on the latest developments in psychoanalysis, psychiatry, biology, and anthropology. Benn makes Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious the basis for his belief that earlier stages of human development can be accessed in privileged states, such as under the influence of drugs or in a trance. Two further ideas are introduced: that of mutation and that of the phenotype and genotype. His belief in the biological and geological nature of personality allowed him to see the history of humankind in terms of “natural” history. This idea suggested to him that Germany in 1933 entered a phase of mutation, and therefore allowed him to embrace the Nazi doctrine.
Benn’s next collection of essays, Fazit der Perspektiven (1930; The balance sheet of perspectives), met with considerable antagonism. Moreover, in 1931 there took place the incident which some critics have seen as the main reason for Benn’s ultimate decision to move into the rightist camp: his speech at the banquet of the Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller on the occasion of Heinrich Mann’s 60th birthday. Benn’s attempt to pass over completely Mann’s political convictions, and instead to celebrate the earlier, late Romantic and “aesthetic” Mann, met with massive rejection not only in the leftist press but elsewhere as well. In response to the attacks by primarily leftist writers, Benn inevitably found himself in the conservative camp; once there, it was difficult to extract himself from it, as the essays in Nach dem Nihilismus (1932; After nihilism) demonstrate.
Much has been written about the events which in 1933 led to Benn’s complete accommodation with the Nazi regime. Whether his reactions were purely emotional or he placed his hope for social and cultural stability on the Nazi regime, whether opportunism or political blindness, is difficult to ascertain. More than with any other essay, perhaps, critics have had difficulty with “Dorische Welt” (1934; The Doric world), the glorification of the militaristic and eugenic values of the world of Sparta. Benn does not advance our knowledge of the Doric world beyond the positions of Nietzsche and Jacob Christoph Burckhardt; the essay’s force lies in the positive interpretation of Sparta and the parallels Benn provides with the contemporary scene. It is difficult to determine whether or not the piece is blatant propaganda for the Hitler state or the first obvious break with its ideology. History itself has played a role in our assessment of what Benn advances in this essay, yet many critics remain unreconciled to the idea that Benn, as he wrote affirmatively of the virtues of Sparta, anticipated the Nazi state and its death camps.
Benn’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the new regime did not prevent him from falling victim to the relentless drive for uniformity of the Nazi ideology. His clinging to a special status for the artist, his defense of certain traditions of which he felt himself part, notably the expressionist movement, caused him, in 1936, to be accused of “Artistik.”
The publication of his Ausgewählte Gedichte (1936; Selected poems) then provoked the scandal which removed him definitively from the scene he had, perhaps reluctantly in the beginning, occupied in so controversial a fashion. With the collapse of his forum and his readership, Benn almost completely abandoned the genre until after 1945.
1949 saw the publication of Ausdruckswelt (Expressive world), a number of essays Benn had written during the period when he was forbidden to publish. They portray him in the old situation of critic of contemporary situations, as dissector and interpreter, but recent events have changed his attitude: his tone is milder, gentler, almost elegiac. The hoped-for mutation, the new race has not been realized. But if it is true that Benn now attacks the Nazis, he also criticizes the German people as a whole, using the criterion not only of nationalism, but also of archaism and barbarism.
Most of the essays take up familiar themes from the 1920s and 1930s, dealing with the dialectic between nihilism and “Artistik.” Benn sees in the rejection of the immediate European past a prerequisite for new art. In “Provoziertes Leben” (1943; A provoked life), he claims that salvation lies in a return to “das Primäre” (the primeval), to the prelogical which would do away with the schizoid split in modern man. In the essay “Pallas” (1943), Benn makes the motherless goddess the symbol of the initial separation between form and formlessness. The goddess becomes not the symbol of nature, but of Geist (spirit or intellect). Both come together in the creative act, which, however, is no longer concerned with “natural” nature, but “thinking” nature, or “stylized” nature—in other words, art.
If Benn’s autobiography Doppelleben (1950; Double life) generally found an ambivalent response, the same cannot be said of critical reactions to “Probleme der Lyrik” (1959; Problems of poetry), which originated as a lecture at the University of Marburg in 1951. Many critics have seen in this text a key to the understanding of Benn’s poetic practice not only of the late phase, but of his whole career. Benn situates modern poetry squarely in the hallucinatory-constructive tradition, and reacts, consistently with his beliefs expressed both in the lyric poetry and in the essays of the 1930s and 1940s, to the mixing of sociological and poetological categories in poetry.
Benn’s insistence in “Probleme der Lyrik” that modern poetry is monologic in essence reiterates a theme he had elaborated in the essays of the 1930s. In “Altern als Problem für Künstler” (1954; “Artists and Old Age”) and “Über mich selbst” (1956; About myself), no further shifts of position can be discerned in his religious beliefs, nor in his poetic theory and practice. “Über mich selbst” in fact effortlessly returns to the definition of the “lyrisches Ich” (the lyric “I”) of more than 30 years before.
Born 2 May 1886 in Mansfeld. Studied philosophy and theology at the University of Marburg, 1903–04; medicine at the University of Berlin, 1904–05; medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm Academy, Berlin, 1905–12, Ph.D., 1912. Worked at a hospital, and as a ship’s physician, 1912–13. Served in the army: discharged for health problems, 1912; served in the army medical corps, 1914–18, 1935–45: awarded the Iron Cross (second class), 1914.
Married Edith Brosin, 1914 (died, 1922): one daughter and one stepson. Skin and venereal diseases specialist, Berlin, after 1917. Supported National Socialism, from 1932, but renounced the National Socialist Party, 1934. Briefly appointed by Nazis acting chair of literary section, Prussian Academy of Arts, 1933. Denounced at various times throughout the 1930s and 1940s by Nazis, Communists, and Democrats. Works banned, 1938–48. Married Herta von Wedemeyer, 1938 (committed suicide, 1945). Ran a private medical practice, Berlin, from 1945. Married Ilse Kaul, 1946.
Awards: Büchner Prize, 1951; Order of Merit (Federal Republic of Germany), 1952.
Died (of cancer) in Bad Schlangenbad, 7 July 1956.
Essays and Related Prose
Das moderne Ich, 1920
Gesammelte Prosa, 1928
Fazit der Perspektiven, 1930
Nach dem Nihilismus, 1932
Der neue Staat und die Intellektuellen, 1933
Kunst und Macht, 1934
Ausdruckswelt: Essays und Aphorismen, 1949
Frühe Prosa und Reden, 1950
Dr. Rönne: Frühe Prosa, 1950
Primal Vision: Selected Writings (includes poetry, essays, short stories, and dramatic sketches), edited by E.B.Ashton, 1960
Medizinische Schriften, edited by Werner Rübe, 1965
Weinhaus Wolf und andere Prosa, 1967
Das Gottfried-Benn-Brevier: Aphorismen, Reflexionen, Maximen aus Werken und Briefen, edited by Jürgen P.Wallmann, 1979
Prose, Essays, Poetry (various translators), edited by Volkmar Sander, 1987
Other writings: poetry, plays, correspondence, and the autobiography Doppelleben (1950).
Collected works editions: Gesammelte Werke, edited by Dieter Wellershoff, 4 vols.,
1958–61; Gesammelte Werke in der Fassung der Erstdrucke, edited by Bruno Hillebrand,
1983–90; Sämtliche Werke, edited by Gerhard Schuster, 5 vols., 1986–91 (in progress).
Dierick, A.P., Gottfried Benn and His Critics: Major Interpretations, 1912–1992,
Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1992:84–106
Lohner, Edgar, “Gottfried Benn-Bibliographie, 1912–1955,” Philobiblon: Eine Vierteljahrsschrift für Buch- und GraphikSammler 1 (1957):59–70
Lohner, Edgar, and Timm Zenner, Gottfried Benn: Bibliographie, 1910–1956, Munich: Cicero Presse, 1985
Schönemann, Peter, and Oskar Sahlberg, “Bibliographie Gottfried Benn,” Text+Kritik 44 (1985):156–66
Über Gottfried Benn: Kritische Stimmen 1986, vol. 2, edited by Bruno Hillebrand, Frankfurt-on-Main: Fischer, 1987:436–507
Alter, Reinhard, Gottfried Benn: The Artist and Politics (1910–1934), Berne and Frankfurt-on-Main: Lang, 1976
Alter, Reinhard, “Gottfried Benn—zwischen Weimarer Republik und Bundesrepublik,” in “Die Mühen der Ebene”: Kontinuiät und Wandel in der deutschen Literatur und Gesellschaft 1945–1949, edited by Bernd Hüppauf, Heidelberg: Winter, 1981
Balser, Hans-Dieter, Das Problem des Nihilismus im Werke Gottfried Benns, Bonn: Bouvier, 1970 (original edition, 1965)
Bense, Max, “Gottfried Benn: Kunst und Macht,” Europäische Revue II (1935):560–62
Dierick, A.P., Gottfried Benn and His Critics: Major Interpretations, 1912–1992, Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1992
Erval, François, “Gottfried Benn ou la double vie des intellectuels allemands,” Les Temps Modernes 103 (1954)
Exner, Richard, “Zum Problem einer Definition und einer Methodik des Essays als dichterischer Kunstform,” Neophilologus 46 (1962):169–82
Eykman, Christoph, “Der Verlust der Geschichte in der deutschen Literatur des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts,” Neophilologus 55 (1971):58–72
Garnier, Pierre, Gottfried Benn, Paris: Silvaire, 1959
Grimm, Reinhold, “Ergriffen und dennoch unbeteiligt: Über Gottfried Benns Verhältnis zur Geschichte,” Welt und Wort 14 (1961):269–73
Grundlehner, Philip, The Lyrical Bridge: Essays from Hölderlin to Benn, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairieigh Dickinson University Press, 1979
Hartung, Günter, “Über die deutsche faschistische Literatur,” Weimarer Beiträge 14 (1968):146–52
Heller, Erich, “Gottfried Benns Hordenzauber,” Die neue Weltbühne 2 (1933):688–91
Jens, Inge, Dichter zwischen Rechts und Links: Die Geschichte der Sektion für Dichtkunst an der Preussischen Akademie der Künste dargestellt nacb den Dokumenten, Leipzig: Kiepenheuer, 1994 (original edition, 1971)
Kügler, Hans, “Künstler und Geschichte im Werk Gottfried Benns,” in his Weg und Weglosigkeit: Neun Essays zur Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im Zwanzigsten Jahrhundert, Heidenheim: Heidenheimer Verlagsanstalt, 1970:77–104
Mann, Klaus, “Gottfried Benn: Die Geschichte einer Verirrung,” Das Wort 9 (1937):35– 42
Mannzen, Walter, “Die Stunde Gottfried Benns: Die Essays,” Frankfurter Hefte 5 (1950):550–53
Rohner, Ludwig, “Gottfried Benn: ‘Dorische Welt’,” in his Der deutsche Essay: Materialien zur Geschichte und Ästhetik einer literarischen Gattung, Neuwied and Berlin: Luchterhand, 1966: 259–80
Wuthenow, Ralph-Rainer, “Literaturkritik, Tradition und Politik: Zum deutschen Essay in der Zeit der Weimarer Republik,” in Die deutsche Literatur in der Weimarer Republik, edited by Wolfgang Rothe, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1974:434–57
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